Opinion: As in the Blue Ridge, another way of life heads for extinction

Watermen's fleet at Tilghman Island, Md., in 1996. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.

By Gary Liberson
Special to the Rappahannock News
Let’s talk about an endangered species. I could talk about the Delmarva fox squirrel (Acipenser brevirostrum) or even the bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii). Instead, I will first briefly mention the Blue Ridge Mountain dwellers (Montanus habitus), who went extinct in the 1930s when the federal government resettled them to make way for the Shenandoah National Park.

Now the the Eastern Shore Commercial Fisherman (Piscator orientali litore) is at risk.

It is impossible to discuss cleaning the Chesapeake Bay without mentioning watermen. There are no government agencies to protect the Piscator orientali litore: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) protects farmers, the Department of Interior (DOI) only protects industries that pay royalties to the U.S. — oil drilling, lumber, coal and natural gas — and the Department of Commerce (DOC) protects American business abroad.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admnistertion (NOAA), and Interior’s Fish and Wildlife service only regulate fishermen, not protect them. Commercial fishing, and in particular small fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay, are plumb out of luck.

Now you might say: “Well, that’s okay. The Chesapeake really isn’t a federal matter.” This is the opinion of the Farm Bureau Federation espoused in its recently filed lawsuit. Of course, the Farm Bureau’s concern is that federal regulation of the bay might (translation: “will”) affect farmers and set some sort of precedent, perhaps along the Mississippi.

But fishermen are not farmers, and as I said before, no government agency or large non-governmetal organization (NGO) protects local fishermen.

Furthermore, there is no one is effectively protecting the Chesapeake Bay. The first Chesapeake Bay Commission was established 31 years ago, and depending on your metric you could say not much has been accomplished in at least the last 10 years. As a confirmation of this, EPA wants to step in and regulate the Chesapeake Bay; hence, the Farm Bureau lawsuit.

Anything as well funded ($58 million just for oyster restoration since 1990) as the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, that’s gone on for so long without resolution, has powerful forces that prefer the status quo.

I think we should forget about restoring the Chesapeake to its former glory. I know that the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the three states causing the largest pollution loads, have done little in the last 10 years to further reduce pollution. Let’s look at the track record:

• 31 years with little accomplished;

• Few controls placed on runoff from farmers, chicken farms and suburban fertilizer usage (urban runoff keeps increasing);

• Little coordination of Menhaden (feeder fish) harvesting as they go up the Chesapeake.

• Open warfare between small local fishermen and the states’ departments of natural resources on commercial fishing regulations.

Simply put, we are not honest about the situation. Runoff loads from Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania can only be controlled by affecting homeowners, chicken farms and farmers. These are all important constituencies. Virginia has little interest in impacting the 300 jobs affected by reducing menhaden fishing, a critical feeder fish for the Chesapeake, or stopping aggressive crab trapping. People come out on the weekends and swim, boat, and fish. The only real victim is the small Eastern Shore fisherman who has to deal with regulations that make earning a living nearly impossible.

EPA talks a great deal about environmental justice. In EPA-speak, this means the protection of minorities and lower-income families disenfranchised from the regulatory process (e.g., siting of landfills and factories). Seems to me that what is going on right now is the disenfranchisement of the local fisherman from the regulatory process. Biologists and regulators are trying to save the Chesapeake Bay, but in doing so they are endangering the local waterman to such a degree that by the time the bay is saved, the fisherman will be gone.

Eventually, the states impacting the Chesapeake will declare victory. The Chesapeake Bay will be a large national park, with a marine highway up the center for container ships bringing goods from Asia and Europe to Baltimore. People will swim, boat, and do recreational fishing. There will be docents in small towns along the Eastern Shore and the Virginia Tidewater explaining how the Chesapeake was, at one time, the richest source of fishing on the East Coast. They will be able to see models of the boats local watermen used and even visit some preserved homes of fishermen. There just won’t be any fishermen. The Piscator orientali litore will be extinct.

Gary Liberson, PhD., is the founder of the first statistics office in the EPA’s Office of Water. An earlier version of his story first appeared on HuffingtonPost.com. You can follow him at twitter.com/gliberson.

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1 Comment

  1. God forbid we should clean up the Mississippi too!

    I guess we’ve decided that cheap Chicken McNuggets and high-fructose corn syrup are worth trashing our coastal and river ecosystems, and the ways of life they support.

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